The European Alliance on Agricultural knowledge for Development

The UK government agri-tech strategy

9 October 2015. Recently the UK government launched its agri-tech strategy with a budget of £160 million to transform the UK into a world renowned centre of agri-tech innovation.

Government emphasis remains centred on the export of this technology; little consideration seems to have been given to what it means for UK agriculture. The rhetoric has overlooked the most important actor in the adoption of precision agriculture – the farmer. As farmers manage 75% of our green and pleasant land, contribute £9.9 billion to the economy, and employ 464,000 people careful consideration must be given to the future of industry.

Harper Adams University offers a masters in precision agriculture, but when only 27% of farmers receive formal training and 59% are over 55, formal or higher education is probably not appropriate. Existing farmer networks may be the best channels to spread new ideas and approaches.

Organisations like the iFA (innovation for agriculture) and agriskills forum already offer some workshops. Increasing support and investment in these schemes would allow greater participation and tailoring courses to a farmer’s needs.

This revolution is as much about decision as precision agriculture. Farmers need help deciphering this treasure trove of data through software that can bring together lots of data from different sources in a meaningful way to support decision making.

In the US several large agri-tech companies offer big data storage and analysis services. For example John Deere has an online portal through which farmers can access the data gathered from their own sensors attached to their machinery. This connects with external data sets like weather and even allows farmers to benefit from crowdsourced data and real time monitoring. But who benefits more from this service, the farmer or John Deere? There are concerns over privacy, security and exploitation.

There is a lot of interest from farmers around the potential of precision agriculture. Around 60% of UK farmers already use some sort of precision agriculture on their farms, although for the most part this simply means using GPS tractor steering. Many farmers are still cautious about entering into this space. It is the small family farms rather than the big agri business that stand to benefit most.

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